FAQ: Crowdsourcing, social media and investigative journalism

Another set of answers in response to questions from a student, as part of the FAQ series. This time, all about crowdsourcing and social media and their impact on investigative journalism.

1. Is ‘crowdsourcing’ good or bad for investigative journalism? Why?

Like most innovations facilitated by the internet, I’d say crowdsourcing offers both new opportunities and new challenges to journalists, including investigative journalists.

The obvious opportunities include access to a wider range of information – but it also offers increased engagement with audiences. The crowdsourced investigation by the Florida News Press into water connection prices, for example, saw higher traffic than any story outside of hurricane season.

The obvious challenge is in quality control over that information – but then any journalist that isn’t already practising quality control over the information they use is not a very good journalist.

2. Social media has led to an influx of ‘citizen Journalists’ do you think these ‘journalists’ are besmirching or enhancing the reputation of investigative journalism? Why?

I don’t think citizen journalists have any impact on the reputation of investigative journalism. The research on perceptions of credibility in news show that people tend to discriminate quite carefully between journalists on different news brands, and between different types of reporting. Questions like ‘How much do you trust Twitter’ are pretty dumb, because it’s like asking ‘How much do you trust the telephone?’

The one thing that citizen journalism has brought, however, is a watchdog role over journalism itself, which if anything enhances the reputation of journalism which manages to withstand that scrutiny.

3. Is investigative journalism utilizing the power of social media to its full extent? If not, why?

Well investigative journalism isn’t a single body. Like journalists more generally, there are investigative journalists who use social media very well, and those who don’t use it at all.

Obviously there are lots of things that individual journalists could use to their full extent. Video, for example, or audio. Like those, social media is always going to be something that some journalists use well, and others don’t.

4. In what direction is social media taking investigative journalism? Why?

You have to be careful of the technological determinism in the question: social media is just a technology – it doesn’t have any motivations or want to take anything anywhere. But the people using it, and the companies making it, have all sorts of motivations – often directly conflicting ones.

On that front then, I’d say that the increasing use of social media as a way to share and receive information means that any journalist who wants to communicate with an audience needs to take it seriously as a newsgathering, publishing and distribution platform.

Investigative journalists are no exception – if anything they can be a bit slower than other journalists because the quality of their stories can sometimes blind them to the shortcomings in its distribution.

5. How has the digital connection between the public and investigative journalists affected the profession? And do the public have a right to be this connected to it?

Wow. The second part of your question really concerns me. Does the public have a right to be connected to investigative journalism? Well who else is journalism for?

Of course the public has a right to be connected with investigative journalism. Journalism is there to serve a public.

Sometimes we can get caught up in the ego trip of ‘the story’ but ultimately if that’s all that mattered we would write fiction. And if a story doesn’t connect with a public, then it’s failed.

So has that digital connection affected the profession? Yes. I conducted some research some years ago into the impact of blogging on journalism and it was very clear that reporters felt a closer connection with their audience as a result of using the technology.

They felt that they knew better what needed to be reported; and what information the audience already had. They also spotted angles and leads that they would have not pre-internet.

Then there’s the accessibility: online media gives the reporter access to a much wider and more diverse range of contacts and information than was previously the case. It makes it easier to check facts and identify individuals.

6. Have the public lost faith in investigative journalism due to the introduction of social media?

I’ve seen no evidence of that. You’d have to ask a polling company, though. No one person can give you a reliable answer to that question.

7. Have investigative journalists become lazy when sourcing and writing their stories? Why and how?

Again, this isn’t a question a single person can answer. You’d have to do proper survey of investigative journalists about their work practices, or observe them or measure their output in some sort of systematic way.

More broadly I’d question the premise of the idea of what you mean by ‘lazy’. Just because it takes less time to access information does not make doing so lazy. It may just be efficient. Follow that logic through and you would call journalists in the 20th century lazy because they used the car rather than walk, and so on.

8. Do you believe that social media has had a negative or positive impact on investigative journalism?

Well I’ll repeat my first answer here! Like most innovations facilitated by the internet, social media offers both new opportunities and new challenges to journalists, including investigative journalists…

These are exactly the same as I outlined in the first answer regarding crowdsourcing. But I would also add that we can now tell stories in exciting visual ways that weren’t possible before; that we can reach audiences through their friends and family – even celebrities – in ways that wouldn’t have happened before.

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